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The Trouble with Bernie

Do Democrats want a dreamscape? Or do they want to win?
May 3, 2019
The Trouble with Bernie

If diagnosis augured cure, Bernie Sanders might become a second Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, he evokes an ersatz George McGovern: a candidate who inspires great passion among a slice of the electorate just large enough to win his party’s nomination, before losing to an incumbent president steeped in criminality. In more ways than one, America cannot afford him.

Relentlessly, Sanders castigates the ills which corrode our democracy by undermining social cohesion: Income inequality. A massive wealth transfer triggered by tax cuts and economic change. Wage stagnation and enfeebled unions. A campaign finance system which auctions outcomes. The widening gap between the fortunate and the rest in the essentials of a decent life—education, economic opportunity, healthcare.

This laser focus has reaped impressive benefits. His millions of followers include small donors who finance his independence. He has relocated the party nearer his chosen turf. He has rallied young people who would rewrite the deal prior generations have handed them. He has spurred reconsideration of what government should do. To have come this far from nothing suggests a formidable gift for awakening dormant passions.

Now, his advocates contend, he is uniquely positioned to oust Donald Trump. A linchpin of this argument is that, in 2016, roughly 12 percent of Bernie’s primary supporters voted for Trump in the general election. Only Sanders, they insist, can reclaim these alienated voters by redirecting their discontents.

But this analysis is foundationally flawed. To begin, such seemingly anomalous overlaps are hardly unique. For example, 13 percent of Trump voters supported Obama in 2012. Nor can one assume that Sanders-Trump voters will behave in 2020 as they did in 2016. Sanders has chosen to launch a frontal attack on Trump which could well trigger a backlash—something he was not required to do in 2016.

On the ideological spectrum, less than one-fifth of these voters identify as liberals. In a general election, it will not escape them that Bernie is, to say the least, an ardent progressive. As the party’s nominee Sanders would be pressed to embrace racial justice more explicitly than in 2016, potentially estranging erstwhile followers who have been aroused by Trump’s white identity politics.

Further, this assertion invites a larger question: whether Sanders can coalesce the other voting groups necessary to an Electoral College victory. One key to the Democrats’ recapture of the House in 2018 was the flipping of suburban moderates in swing districts—a group demonstrably leery of Sanders’ populist rhetoric. Among voters nationwide, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 50 percent of all voters were “very uncomfortable” with Sanders and that another 21 percent had “some reservations.”

Little wonder. To say that, as politicians go, Sanders is not terribly supple understates the problem—he seems to carry a quixotic solipsism embedded in his psyche. For those of a certain age, Sanders evokes a familiar figure from the 1960s: the committed ideologue transfixed by an inner vision of tectonic change and driven by uncompromising fidelity to self-defined principal. At worst, this becomes the springboard for otherworldly behaviors.

One largely forgotten example: as mayor of Burlington, Sanders gave his modest burg its own foreign policy, writing letters of reproof to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and imploring the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union to embrace disarmament. He climaxed these efforts by visiting Daniel Ortega in Venezuela, then writing Reagan proposing to help resolve America’s conflict with the Sandinistas.

A current instance tests the outer limits of reason: Sanders’ insistence that incarcerated felons be allowed to vote. Asked if this included the Boston Marathon bomber—a domestic terrorist responsible three murders and numerous life-changing injuries—Sanders responded that even “terrible people” should not lose “their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

For most Americans, the line between nonviolent offenders and mass murderers will not be hard to draw. No doubt Trump will help them. Here Sanders’ iron adherence to principal transcends the morally obtuse: For a candidate seeking inroads into Trump’s blue-collar base, it’s crack-smoking lunacy.

This obliviousness to political gravity suggests his greatest liability: that Sanders is not a Democrat, but a self-described “democratic socialist” addicted to top-down solutions which, for many, are unaffordable and unachievable. Here is the quintessential Sanders paradox: the same proposals which arouse such excitement among some voters arouse, in still more, grave doubts about his practicality or wisdom.

Take his signature proposal, single-payer healthcare. Philip Rotner has documented the myriad uncertainties and unintended consequences which could turn Sanders’ nirvana into a nightmare. Briefly:

  • Sanders demurely fudges the monumental cost, set by the non-partisan Urban Institute at $32 trillion over a decade—requiring an enormous tax hike. While Sanders claims that this will be offset by reductions in the cost of healthcare, no one truly knows whether or not they will materialize.
  • In the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell notes other complications: There are roughly 170 million people who like their current employer-sponsored health insurance. There is the prospect of hospitals being bankrupted because Medicare reimburses at lower rates. We could find ourselves in a position where healthcare rationing becomes the only alternative to spiraling taxes.

That’s why Sanders has sharp skeptics on the left: exemplified by Ezra Klein, who writes that his health plan “solves precisely none of the problems that foiled every other single-payer plan in American history.” Notably, these failures include swing state Colorado, bright blue California, and Sanders’ home state of Vermont where Sanders declined to help deal with the details of trying to make coverage square with the sharp rise in taxes needed to cover the disheartening prospective cost.

Blithely, Sanders also proposes free tuition at our public universities. Surely we should make college affordable for those in need, lest we waste the talents of our young and deepen our class divide. But why should America’s taxpayers subsidize the children of the affluent?

They shouldn’t—and can’t. The estimated cost is $75 billion a year, which is an enormous giveaway to high-income families.

It’s far more sensible to give generous aid to low-income students, reducing it as one moves up the ladder. The savings could be spent on those who don’t go to college—in job retraining, relocating displaced workers, or fortifying our social safety net—as well as pressing necessities such as infrastructure. Instead, enraptured by a vision of transforming higher education, Sanders would squander precious resources

With a similar lack of discrimination, Sanders endorses the Green New Deal as the appropriate response to the existential peril of climate change. But is it? While the GND proposes to end our dependence on fossil fuels in a decade, it is light on specifics of how to achieve such a daunting transformation. It also includes provisions of dubious relevance, including a federal jobs guarantee, family medical leave, and paid vacations for all. However desirable some may be, these utopian appendages needlessly expose the GND and Sanders to mockery and accusations of ideological overreach.

Equally fundamental the proposal soft-pedals the centerpiece of most serious proposals to combat climate change: a carbon tax. Sanders’ refusal to confront this thorny issue raises questions about the his willingness to buttress lofty sentiment with rigorous analysis and specific proposals.

But his Sanders’ proposed federal jobs guarantee best encapsulates the intellectual sloth beneath his passion for maximalist government. Even experts who call for aggressive government intervention to spur employment and raise wages eviscerate this plan.

In brief, Sanders proposes to create 15 million government jobs at $15 per hour—that’s over five times the number of current federal employees—while providing Medicare and childcare for all of them. Experts estimate the annual cost atof $400 billion—though, again, Sanders eschews such details.

But details matter. As Kevin Drum points out in Mother Jones, those making less than $15 an hour might besiege the program, driving the number of participants nearer to 37 million. What of those who make a bit more, but don’t like their job? Or part-time workers? Or the cost of expanding Medicare and childcare? Where does Sanders draw the line?

The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. Nor does he deal with other glaring problems: A mismatch between jobs and worker skills. Or an inability to discipline or fire reluctant employees. Or the number of prospective workers with drug or alcohol problems. Or the obvious incapacity of the federal government to supervise such massive job creation.

For all of these reasons, even the social democracies of Europe don’t guarantee jobs for all. As Robert Samuelson writes, “By assigning government tasks likely to fail, the advocates of activist government bring government into disrepute.”

Which brings us to Sanders’ cosmic weakness. “We won’t even have to be negative,” a prominent GOP operative told me, “Bernie is a self–described socialist.” Though the aversion varies by age, fewer than one-in-five Americans have a positive view of socialism – however imprecise their definition. By enabling Republicans to wrap his platonic proposals in a single pejorative package, Sanders is running to lose.

Here is the crowning irony: any possibility of enacting Sanders’ “political revolution” requires the very opposite—a popular upheaval which transforms our body politic, allowing President Sanders to terrorize a polarized and gerrymandered Congress into passing his agenda. This is a political and programmatic cul-de-sac – Sanders risks losing an election in pursuit of an agenda which, if he won, he could never enact.

In truth, Sanders is a political tooth fairy, asking voters to chase a fantasy down a rabbit hole to nowhere. But magical thinking won’t beat Trump. The reckoning of 2020 demands a candidate with the discipline, talent, realism and resolve to make our collective reality better. Whoever that might be, it isn’t Bernie Sanders.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.